Cletus the farmer paced angrily outside the house he had built with his own two hands. A house that he was now also going to have to repair himself. A black bear had broken down his back door, done extensive damage to his kitchen and larder, and dug up a large portion of the living room floor. This wasn’t the first time bears had been an issue for Cletus, but nothing like this had ever happened before. After returning from the market to discover the damage, he had immediately gone back to town and posted a job offer for anyone who could hunt down the bear in question. Three individuals had come to inquire about the job so far, but all of them had laughed in his face and left after he told them about the most bizarre part of the incident. Maybe he should just give up on it. He momentarily halted his pacing and glanced up.
“Oh, what the hell is this?” he muttered to himself
Approaching along the path from town were the two most bizarre figures that Cletus had ever set eyes on. One was exceedingly tall, dressed in loose fitting leather armor, and carried what appeared to be a small tree trunk that had been carved down into a spiked pole. Cletus doubted whether a normal person could even lift this piece of wood, but the giant of a man carried it easily in one hand, and was even using it as a walking stick. The other person was of a more normal height, but no less concerning. They wore heavy armor, including a full helmet with the visor drawn down, and had a large sword hilt protruding from over their shoulder. As the curious pair approached, the giant man spied Cletus and raised his hand in greeting while calling out.
“Ho farmer! Are you Cletus?”
Cletus briefly considered denying his identity, but then thought better. Perhaps these wackos would believe his story. He certainly wouldn’t expect anyone to believe him if he were to describe the appearance of the two people now strolling through his front yard.
“Aye. I am Cletus. Who’s askin’?”
A broad smile appeared upon the giant man’s face. His voice was deep yet jovial, and Cletus felt oddly comforted by the man’s expression and demeanor.
“A fine day to you, my good sir. My name is Roderick, you may call me Rod, and these are my two companions; Kale,” He gestured to the armored man. “And Ted.” He gestured to his large piece of wood. “We are here to inquire about an opportunity for employment.”
Cletus blinked a few times as his brain caught up with his ears. He decided to ignore part of what he had heard, and returned the giant man’s infectious smile.
“Very well,” said Cletus. “Follow me.”
He led the odd pair... trio?... no, pair, around to the back of his house where the bear had broken in. He stood outside the back door and pointed at the standing shed a few meters away.
“Bears have always been trying to get into my store room, some even succeeded, because I keep my salted meat in there. But this one ignored it completely and went straight for the back door.”
He waved for the duo to follow him as he stepped into his kitchen. The room was a mess with cabinets torn apart and utensils scattered all across the floor.
“The bear destroyed the kitchen entirely, even though there was little to no food in here. Almost like it was looking for something. Then it went into the larder. It ate a bunch of my food, but the larder itself isn’t damaged. I don’t understand why it tore apart the kitchen cabinets but barely touched the boxes in the larder.”
Rod stuck his head into the larder to confirm what the farmer had said. There were some half eaten potatoes and apples on the floor, but not much else seemed to have been disturbed.
“And now the strangest part of all.” said Cletus as he walked into the living room. “The bear robbed me.”
As Rod ducked to enter the room, at first he saw no damage at all, then he saw Cletus pointing into the corner. The corner in question had been completely dug up, and now consisted of a hole about 3 feet deep and a pile of dirt beside it.
“When my wife died 5 years ago, I buried her jewelry box in this corner. No one but me and my son should have known it was there, and yet a bear dug up the box and left with it.”
“That’s odd.” Rod said matter-of-factly.
“Mmm.” Echoed Kale. This was the first time the helmeted man had said anything.
Cletus eyed the pair. “So you believe me?” he asked hopefully.
“Whether we believe you or not is unimportant. You’re hiring us to do a job, which as far as I know, does not require belief, only action.”
“We kill bear.” Added Kale. His voiced slightly muffled through his helmet.
Cletus signed. “Very well. You’re hired. Bring me the bear’s head and I’ll give you each 20 gold. Bring back my wife’s jewelry and I’ll make it 30 a piece.”
The two immediately began moving back towards the entrance they had entered through.
“Sounds agreeable. We should be back before sundown.” Rod said as he left.
Cletus re-exited his back door just in time to see the odd pair receding into the woods. He wasn’t expecting much, but at least they hadn’t laughed in his face the way the first three hunters had. Cletus’s thoughts began to wonder. He hadn’t mentioned his son to anyone since he had left home some odd months back. Perhaps he had been too hard on the boy.
“Come home Jim.” he said to himself, as he set to the task of repairing his home.
Rod and Kale came to a halt at the edge of the small stream that crossed their path. They had been following the bear’s trail, which now ended at the water’s edge.
“Let’s spread out a bit and look for tracks,” said Rod as he waded across the stream. “You search that bank and I’ll search this one over here.”
After a few minutes of fruitless searching up and down his side of the stream, Kale tilted his visor up slightly and called out to Rod.
“Good!” replied Rod, as he waded back across the creek. “I didn’t find a damn thing on my side.”
Rod dripped his way from where he crossed the stream to where Kale stood and looked down.
“Kale, these are deer tracks. And how did you even notice these? I walked right past them earlier.”
Kale simply shrugged in response.
“You are a stunning conversationalist as always. Sometimes I think you don’t get enough air in that helmet of yours. Well, now what? The bear’s trail seems to have ended in the brook. I wish Nickolai was here. Tracking is not my specialty.”
Kale brought his hands up behind his head and fiddled with his helmet strap for a number of seconds before finally taking off his helm. He took a few deep breaths as clarity returned to his mind.
“You might be right about me not getting enough air in there. It is a bit stifling. What if the bear swam downstream in order to avoid leaving tracks?”
Rod stared at his companion for a moment. It was very strange how much more talkative Kale always was when he took his helmet off.
“You think the bear is avoiding being tracked?” asked Rod.
“Well, it did just rob someone.” replied Kale.
“Point taken.” said Rod, as the two set off downstream.
After walking along the brook for a number of minutes, the pair found the bear’s footprints exiting the water. The bear really had been swimming downstream. Kale put his helmet back on in preparation for a possible confrontation, and they began following the trail anew. Rather than diverging from the stream, the tracks continued to follow it, until Rod and Kale reached the stream’s destination. The forest around them began to thin, and suddenly they found themselves standing on the edge of a small lake which the stream flowed into. The bear’s footprints also led directly into the lake.
“The longer we follow these tracks, the less I doubt what the farmer told us. We are following the weirdest bear in the history of bears,” said Rod.
Kale simply nodded and pointed out at the center of the lake. “There?”
Rod shaded his eyes and squinted against the now almost mid-day sun. In the center of the lake was a small island, complete with its own forest.
“I would ask why a bear would swim to an island in the middle of a lake, but I’m not sure asking questions about the bear we’re following is going to help very much. I could probably swim there. But you...” Rod looked at Kale pointedly.
“Find boat.” said Kale, as he turned and began clanking his way along the shoreline.
Rod shrugged and followed. After a few minutes of walking, Kale turned and pointed towards the island once again.
“Found Boat.” said Kale
Rod again shaded his eyes and squinted at the island. From this angle he could just make out that there was a makeshift dock and perhaps some sort of canoe sticking out of the foliage behind it.
“That doesn’t really help us,” replied Rod. “The boat is over there and we’re over here.”
“Oh. Damn.” Kale’s helmet tilted down slightly, revealing his dejection. Then Kale pointed at the lake again, this time at the water. “What is that?”
Rod followed Kale’s armored finger to a spot only a short distance from the shore. There was a strange glint in the water.
“Interesting,” said Rod. “I’ll investigate. Here. Hold Ted.”
Rod handed his behemoth stick to Kale, who almost dropped it before becoming accustomed to its weight. The giant man waded into the water and swam out to where the sparkle was. He dove and quickly resurfaced, returning to the shore. As he sloshed he way up on to dry land, Rod held aloft a gleaming bracelet made of gold inlaid with silver. The two examined the item and both came to the same conclusion. Their quarry was a serial burglar with a loose grip.
Rod pocketed the bracelet and the two set off along the shoreline once more. It wasn’t much longer before they came upon a paddle-boat poorly concealed in the brush near the water’s edge. They pushed the boat into the shallows, climbed in, and began rowing across.
Rod glanced over his shoulder after having been lost in the rhythm of rowing for several minutes. The island at the center of the lake was further from the shore than he had first thought.
“Who does this boat belong to?” Rod wondered aloud. “Bears don’t need boats.”
He turned his head back around at the sound of kale’s muffled voice.
At first Rod didn’t know what problem Kale was referring to, then he looked down and saw the water slowly seeping in through several cracks in the bottom of the boat.
“Oh.” said Rod, and redoubled his paddling efforts.
The pair reached the island shore just as the boat lost all buoyancy, and they were left standing in the shallows atop what was now less a boat and more an underwater decoration. They both slogged up onto the shore of the island, Rod breathing heavily from the exertion of paddling.
“Time for a breather,” said Rod, as he sat down heavily onto the small strip of sand at the water’s edge.
Kale paced a bit, impatient to continue their bizarre investigation.
“Take a walk around the island,” said Rod. “See if you can find that other boat. We’re going to need it to get off this island.”
Kale nodded in assent and set off down the shoreline. He walked for a few minutes in the direction he remembered the other boat being in. Then, just as his mind started to wander, he saw movement up ahead. He drew his sword in preparation for whatever might be on the island, then stopped dead and lifted his visor in disbelief. He beheld the most bizarre sight he had ever experienced. From the brush slowly emerged a boat, and then the creature that was pushing it. It was a bear. A black bear was pushing a boat towards the shore of the island. Kale could think of nothing to do besides call out.
“Oy! Bear!” He yelled.
The bear’s head spun towards him with wide eyes, and it shoved the boat into the water with one mighty push. It then leapt into the boat and began paddling furiously with its paws away from the island. Kale was too dumbfounded to do anything besides watch the bear splash it’s way into the distance. Kale sheathed his sword, turned on the spot, and quickly walked back to where he had left Rod. He found him still sitting on the beach, waiting for his return.
“Did you find the boat?” Rod inquired.
Kale again fiddled with his helmet strap and removed it from his head.
“You were wrong.” said Kale matter-of-factly. “Bears do use boats.”
Rod raised an eyebrow. “What are you talking about?”
“I just watched what I assume was our prey push that boat into the lake and paw his way across. I think he stranded us here. This may all have been some sort of trap.” said Kale.
Rod stood, contemplating what his companion was saying. He shrugged and picked up Ted from the water’s edge.
“We might as well explore the island while we’re here. Let’s just go straight to the heart.”
He strode off into the forest. Kale strapped his helmet back on and followed.
After a few minutes of walking, the pair came upon a small circular stone tower nestled inside the island’s forest. A wooden door provided the only entrance to the two story stone structure.
Rod, clearly somewhat impatient after the days events thus far, strode directly up to the door.
“I’ll knock and see if there’s anyone home.” Rod said as he leveled Ted underneath his right arm.
Rod planted his left foot near the front of the door and spun mightily, hammering the blunt end of the tree trunk into the side of the door with hinges. The door cracked, spun, and flew off into the room, leaving the metal hinges twisted and still attached to the frame. Rod nodded in satisfaction and took a few steps to the side of the opening. From the darkness emerged two black bears in single file. Rod took a few more steps back.
“Are you two going to pick our pockets and run off as well?” Rod asked cheerfully.
The bear in front roared and charged at Kale, while the other remained in the doorway. Rod smiled. This was the much preferable outcome. He knew Kale must also be grinning like an idiot under his helmet. This is what they were good at. The bear closed the distance to Kale in a matter of seconds, but the armored man was experienced and ready. In one fluid motion he stepped forward, drew his sword from over his shoulder, and brought it cleaving down into the bear’s neck with a sickening thud. The bear took one more step forward, gently laid its claws on Kale’s armor, and collapsed in a heap. At this the other bear also charged Kale, who was having a bit of difficulty getting his sword out of the bear’s neck. Just as the bear was about to reach Kale, Rod caught up, grabbed the bear by the waist from behind, picked it up completely off the ground, and slammed it back down headfirst into a nearby rock. Before the bear could figure out what had happened, Rod was behind it again, this time wrapping an arm tightly around its neck. The bear struggled feebly, still disoriented from head-butting the ground, as Rod choked the life out of it. Rod stood up straight again as the unfortunate creature ceased twitching. It likely never expected to meet its match in a raw test of strength. Kale finally removed his sword from the first bear and cleaned it on the fallen beast’s fur.
“Ogre.” he said.
Rod winced. “You know I don’t like that nickname. It brings back bad memories. Let’s see what’s inside.”
Rod ducked slightly to get inside the door and waited for his eyes to adjust as his armored companion followed. To his right was a spiral staircase that led up to the second floor. The rest of the room seemed to contain little more than broken wood, leaves, bones, and bear excrement. Rod started up the stairs, which seemed the preferable alternative to digging through bear shit. The second floor contained two desks, a table, and a number of chairs, all of which were covered in a find layer of dusk. It had been some time since anyone had been up here. There was also a ladder that led up to the top of the tower, but many of the rungs were cracked or broken and it seemed dubious at best. Rod sat on one of the desks and waited for Kale to finish climbing the stairs. None of this made any sense. How had the bears survived in a locked tower with no food source? Kale, having reached the top of the stone steps, again removed his helmet with some difficulty and sat down on a sturdy looking chair. The two looked at each other. Rod shrugged, stood up, and began walking back towards the stairs. Kale sighed and put his helmet back on, then froze. He grabbed Rod’s wrist as he walked past.
“I hear something. Downstairs.” he whispered through his helmet.
Rod nodded and descended the stairs as quietly as possible while Kale stayed seated in his chair. Kale saw Rod hold out his hand palm first, signaling him to stay put, as Rod disappeared down the staircase. About a minute later, Kale heard a loud thud, followed by Rod’s voice yelling for him to come down. As he descended the tower he noticed an open trap door in the center of the first floor. Neither of them had noticed it on the way in. He exited the tower and saw Rod triumphantly hefting Ted over a man in robes collapsed on the ground.
The Blood receded from his mind. He was in control again. The druid formerly known as a thieving black bear was capable of controlling his own actions for the first time in weeks. He collapsed where he stood and started rolling around on the ground, slowly regaining his identity while enjoying his freedom of will. As his faculties returned he realized that blood magic was not his only barrier to regaining his composure. While the mage’s blood had still been in his brain what little of himself that was not under control had fallen into a depression. The blood magic had still allowed him to do necessary things like eat and sleep, so he had used those small freedoms to seek out and consume all manner of things, from alcohols, to hallucinogenic mushrooms, to things he knew to be outright poisonous. He was currently experiencing a very nasty cross-section of different mind altering chemicals, and was beginning to wish the blood magic had not prevented him from eating a lethal amount of anything he knew to be toxic. He staggered to his feet and took stock of his surroundings. Everything was blurry, and wiggling, but he could still recognize his own trail, so he set about the task of retracing his steps.
Rod and Kale strolled through the peaceful island forest. Both felt an odd mix of triumph, dejection, and serenity. They still hadn’t really figured anything out about the island or about the tower, nor had they found a way to return to the shore of the lake. What they did have was the box of jewelry they had been tasked to retrieve, and an unconscious man in robes roped firmly to Ted, whom Rod was dragging behind him as he walked. Their thought process was that no matter who this guy was, his tower contained a number of human skeletons, and thus he must be guilty of something, and the Watch would likely reward them for turning him in. The trees thinned as they approached the beach where Kale had seen the other bear. There might be more watercraft hidden nearby. As they exited the trees and their feet hit sand and rock, they were both treated to the sight which Kale had witnessed earlier, only in reverse. A Bear in a boat was pawing it’s way across the lake towards them. They simply stared at it as it approached. How often did you get the chance to see something like this? Better to appreciate the moment while you’re in it. As the bear neared the island, Rod planted the sharp end of Ted in the ground, suspending the robed man upside down, and Kale drew his sword. The bear ran aground on the shore, put a paw on the side of the boat, and scuttled over the side, landing face first in the shallows. It slowly pulled itself up onto two paws, using the boat as support, and began making bear noises while gesturing with its paws.
Rod turned to Kale. “Is it trying to talk?”
The bear stopped at this and made an exasperated sounding noise while hanging its head, then slowly began to shrink. The bear gradually got shorter, and thinner, but after a point no less hairy. Finally the fur fell away from the top of his head and what was left was a Dwarf with a very large beard and a perfectly bald head. He opened his mouth again, and vomit spewed out. Rod and Kale looked at each other again to confirm that they were indeed seeing the same thing, then waited patiently as the man who had previously been a bear finished his coughing fit.
He finally raised his head. “I owe you two both a pint.”
Companion Piece: Bandit Lord